U.S. Halts Unesco Funding Following Palestinian Membership Vote

The U.S. cut off funding for Unesco today after the United Nations’ cultural agency voted to admit Palestine as a member state.

The landslide vote by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization prompted the U.S. to cancel a planned $60 million payment, as required by U.S. law, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The Palestinian membership application for the Paris-based agency, which the U.S. lobbied against, was approved with 107 votes, with 14 against and 52 abstentions. Palestine becomes the 195th member state in the group best known for its designation of “world heritage” sites.

The U.S. supplies $80 million a year, or 22 percent of the agency’s operating budget.

“The vote to grant Palestinian membership in Unesco is no substitute for direct negotiations, but it is deeply damaging for Unesco,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said in a message posted on her Twitter feed.

Under U.S. law, the United States is prohibited from giving funds to the UN or any UN agency that grants the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.

“Existing U.S. law mandates that we cut off funding to any UN body that approves such a request,” U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an e-mailed statement today.

Seeking Recognition

As Middle East peace talks remain stalled, Palestinians are pursuing recognition as a full member at the UN itself as well as elevated status in other international bodies, including the World Trade Organization and the Council of Europe.

The U.S. has opposed such steps, describing them as a distraction from a return to peace negotiations, and has vowed to use its veto power on any Security Council vote on full UN membership.

“The Unesco vote “is regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” Nuland said at the daily State Department briefing.

“We are not any closer to a Palestinian state by virtue of this vote today,” she said.

The U.S. plans to maintain its membership in Unesco, she said, though it may lose voting rights if the funding cutoff continues for two years.

‘Work Harder’

“We will all need to work harder” toward achieving a two-state solution through a negotiated solution to the Middle East peace process, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters today in New York. He said the vote today would have financial implications for the funding of Unesco.

Today’s outcome, where more than a quarter of countries abstained, also revealed deep divisions in the positions of European nations that currently make up a third of the 15-member Security Council. France voted in favor, the U.K. abstained and Germany voted against.

“Despite all the efforts of the U.S. and other countries that put pressure on Unesco not to accept Palestine as a member, it is clear enough now that there is a majority in this world who are courageous enough to vote for Palestinians and their rights,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee.

The Palestinians can push for a Security Council vote as soon as Nov. 11, when the council meets to discuss the final report put together by experts on the viability of the Palestinian application.

Missing Ninth Vote

Palestinian officials have said at least eight council members -- Russia, China, Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon and India -- will vote “yes.” Nine votes are needed to approve the application, and the attainment of that number would force the U.S. to use its veto to block Palestinian membership.

The Palestinians’ bid to secure one more vote suffered a setback today when the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- shared by three leaders representing Muslims, Croats and Serbs - - met and failed to reach a unified position to support the application. The country recognized Palestine as a state in 1992, the year it declared its own independence before the outbreak of war.

The Palestinians might circumvent the Security Council and try to upgrade their UN status to “non-member state” from “entity” in the UN General Assembly, where they expect to exceed the two-thirds majority needed and where the U.S. has no veto.

‘Unilateral’ Maneuver

Peace talks stalled shortly after they began in September 2010. Palestinians balked at returning to the negotiations after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank. U.S., EU and UN envoys have shuttled to the region since then in an effort to restart negotiations.

The Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement critical of Unesco’s action.

“This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement,” it said in the statement. “The Palestinian move at Unesco, as with similar such steps with other UN bodies, is tantamount to a rejection of the international community’s efforts to advance the peace process.”